How to watch the NBA on Christmas: A guide for the avid and casual basketball fan

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The NBA’s Christmas Day slate features five games, four title favorites, three potential future MVPs, two 17-time champions and an actual Charlie Brown. There is something for everyone. Allow me to explain.

Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks (Noon ET, ESPN; Knicks -6.5 at BetMGM)

For the uninitiated

The Knicks were back. They wildly exceeded expectations last season, securing a playoff spot — a home seed at that — for the first time in eight seasons. They did so under hard-nosed coach Tom Thibodeau, an assistant in New York when last the Knicks reached the NBA Finals in 1999, playing the same brutish style.

Enter Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young, a 6-foot-1 underdog with the brashness of a prince plotting to usurp the throne. He stole Game 1 of their first-round series in Madison Square Garden, sinking a winning floater in the final second to cap a 32-point masterpiece, and reveled in his villainous role. He put his index finger to his lips, silencing a crowd that had spent the evening chanting "F*** Trae Young," among other insults.

Just as the 1990s Knicks had Reggie Miller, this edition had Young, a rival befitting the league's most hostile atmosphere. Even a fan who spat in his direction during Game 2 could not disrupt his flow. By the time the Hawks returned to MSG with a 3-1 series lead, Young's teammates had assumed his confidence. Clint Capela declared they would send the Knicks "on vacation," and Young did just that, scoring a game-high 36 points in a resounding series-clinching victory — taking a bow at center court for good measure.

Six months after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made "an important official announcement," urging Young to "stop hunting for fouls," the 23-year-old Hawks star earned a write-in vote in the city's mayoral election. This is the sort of drama you cannot script on broadway. The Garden awaits Atlanta's encore, even if Young remains in the NBA's health and safety protocols as doubtful for the Christmas opener.

For the initiated

The Hawks (14-15) and Knicks (14-17) are among the Eastern Conference's most disappointing teams, both sitting on the edge of a crowded potential play-in tournament field — for entirely different reasons.

The Hawks have struggled to continue the momentum they built on last season's conference finals run. The depth that made them so dangerous left them all wanting more, and some will have to find it elsewhere.

Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter signed $363 million worth of contracts in the offseason, joining three more teammates making roughly $20 million annually, and bills will soon come due for recent lottery picks De'Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Onyeka Okongwu. They cannot keep everyone. Consolidating a few of them into a trade is necessary not only to manage against the luxury tax, but to striking a balanced rotation.

Meanwhile, the Knicks traded their defensive identity for more playmaking from disappointing ex-Celtics Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker. Julius Randle has fallen back to Earth from his All-NBA campaign, and R.J. Barrett has not taken the Year 3 leap many expected. The magic is gone from a season ago, evidenced by the deprecation from Walker's conquering hometown hero's welcome to his benching 18 games later. New York desperately needs another star, and the Knicks could sacrifice anyone on the roster to get him.

As the COVID-19 Omicron variant ravages rosters around the league, Walker has returned to the lineup, just as several Hawks will get their time to shine on Christmas. Consider this a showcase of both teams' assets.

Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC; Bucks -4.5 at BetMGM)

For the uninitiated

The Bucks' 2021 NBA championship run was not just a win a half-century in the making for Milwaukee, but for small-market teams everywhere. Giannis Antetokounmpo chose the path of most resistance, signing a supermax extension with the team that drafted him, rather than strolling a super-team path in free agency.

The city loved him for it. His teammates loved him for it. There was genuine love between Antetokounmpo and longtime partner in crime Khris Middleton, so when the Bucks struggled through injuries to start this season, you just trusted them to figure it out, because their relationships were built on a strong foundation.

Not so for the Celtics, who have seen their own lovable run to Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals devolve into a combustible chemistry as new stars have come and gone around a promising young core. Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward walked out in succession, even as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown added another conference finals appearance between. A once-stocked cadre of draft picks and a host of mid-tier signings have yielded little of value. Horford's return has not salvaged what was lost.

Let this game be a lesson that fantasy basketball is easier than the actual fantasy of basketball in action.

For the initiated

Not long ago, we debated Tatum's value as the East's second-best player behind Antetokounmpo. Tatum made the 2020 All-NBA Third Team in his age 21 season and wiped the floor with Second Team forward Pascal Siakam in the conference semifinals. There are times he flashes MVP potential, like when he scored 50 points on four occasions down the stretch of last season, including two postseason games. And there are times he performs a poor Kobe Bryant impression, stagnating the offense and jacking long jumpers.

Tatum needs to establish himself as a bona fide superstar, and what better time than a Christmas afternoon showdown with the reigning champions. He dropped 42 points on 25 shots in a 14-point victory against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks just two weeks ago — Boston's most impressive win of an underwhelming season — but if Antetokounmpo taught us anything, it is consistent dominance that separates the greats.

Stephen Curry's Warriors and Chris Paul's Suns might be the best rivalry going in the NBA this season. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)
Stephen Curry's Warriors and Chris Paul's Suns might be the best rivalry going in the NBA this season. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns (5 p.m. ET, ABC; Suns -5.5 at BetMGM)

For the uninitiated

Flash back to 2014. Chris Paul is the commander of the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers. He is well on his way to securing a spot behind Magic Johnson as one of the greatest point guards in league history, and the Clippers are poised to deliver the championship he needs to get there. Paul manhandles an upstart Steph Curry, fresh off his first All-Star campaign, in a seven-game first-round slugfest. The Point God prevails.

Flash forward seven years. Curry has five Finals appearances, three titles and two MVPs to his name. He is well on his way to adding one more of each in another record-setting season. Having twice dashed Paul's playoff hopes in the years between, Curry is leaving little doubt which point guard ranks behind Johnson.

Only, here is Paul, still kicking. He finally made his first Finals appearance last season at age 35 with a Suns team that had not even reached the playoffs in a decade. He is up to his old tricks again, leading the league in assists for a fifth time as the floor general for the Western Conference's first-place team. Curry is nipping at his heels again, and Paul has a chance — maybe his last — to leave his stamp on an all-time discussion.

For the initiated

There is real strategy here that Phoenix hopes to take with it into a potential Western Conference finals meeting. The Suns enjoyed tremendous success employing the 7-foot-1 wingspan of Mikal Bridges to disrupt Curry in their first showdown of the season. Likewise, Paul leveraged center Deandre Ayton's size against the small-ball Warriors on offense, feeding his big man for easy buckets in an eight-point win.

Golden State got its revenge a few nights later, blowing out the Devin Booker-less Suns, who were working on the second night of a back-to-back. But the principles of what worked initially was no fluke for Phoenix.

According to the NBA's tracking data, Bridges has now spent almost 12 minutes opposite Curry over the course of 59 possessions, leaving the league's leading MVP candidate scoreless on four shots. Ayton has now scored 47 points on 35 shots and left a ton more on the board. If those two can continue to help the Suns leverage their length against Curry and company, the Warriors are not such surefire West favorites.

Brooklyn Nets at Los Angeles Lakers (8 p.m. ET, ABC, ESPN; Nets -1.5 at BetMGM)

For the uninitiated

COVID-19 has ravaged the rosters of the NBA's marquee Christmas matchup between two super-teams, but what's left still reflects the impact LeBron James and Kevin Durant have had on the NBA over the past decade. Both have teamed with a pair of high-profile costars who leave them little room on the salary cap beyond veteran exceptions. And, man, have they used those, recruiting aged stars Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap, among other notable veterans.

That strategy has not worked for two teams that entered the season as favorites to meet in the Finals.

Durant's brilliance has kept the Nets afloat, but Kyrie Irving has yet to play this season over a vaccination holdout, and James Harden has not been the perennial MVP candidate we had come to know. When the reserves are thrust into prominence, the Nets look vulnerable, even if they still hold the East's top spot.

The Lakers aren't vulnerable. They're average. The Russell Westbrook addition has been predictably disastrous. Amid mounting injury concerns, the soon-to-be 37-year-old James missed more than two weeks with an abdominal injury, and Anthony Davis will miss at least the next four with a sprained knee. The likes of Anthony, Kent Bazemore, Malik Monk and Wayne Ellington are not anchoring an elite defense.

This may not be the end of the super-team era, but Saturday's game is certainly another strike against it.

For the initiated

Can either team find a helpful contributor through the mess of health and safety protocols?

The Nets have signed Langston Galloway, Shaquille Harrison, James Ennis and Wenyen Gabriel to hardship exceptions. Rookies Cam Thomas, Kessler Edwards, Day'Ron Sharpe and the unfortunately named David Duke Jr. have also seen increased playing time. Thomas is not afraid to shoot. Duke brings defensive energy. Edwards is shooting 41% in a limited sample size from 3-point range. There are roles to be earned.

Same goes for the Lakers, who have added Isaiah Thomas and Jemerrio Jones on hardship deals in addition to giving longer looks to the few young players they have on the roster. Outside of undrafted rookie Austin Reaves, who was doing his best Alex Caruso impression until he entered protocols this week, Lakers coach Frank Vogel has been unwilling to trust anyone but his established players. Thomas, the former All-Star, scored 42 points in the G League before his call-up, but he has struggled to find his rhythm in L.A.

Commit to a few of these guys and let them get some significant run. Christmas is a time for giving, after all, and both teams should be praying Santa Claus gives them a gift they can use for the rest of this season.

Dallas Mavericks at Utah Jazz (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN; Jazz -12.5 at BetMGM)

For the uninitiated

There is a decent shot you have never heard of anyone who will start for the Mavericks on Saturday, and once you have learned their names, most of them won't see the floor when next you find Dallas on your Christmas Day slate. So, let us praise the Jazz, who are for the second straight season an elite NBA team.

Utah boasts three returning All-Stars (rising superstar Donovan Mitchell, defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert and crafty veteran Mike Conley), the top two vote-getters for Sixth Man of the Year last season (winner Jordan Clarkson and runner-up Joe Ingles) and the league's No. 1-rated offense by a massive margin.

The four points per 100 possessions between Utah's offense and the second-rated Hawks is equal to the difference between the Hawks and the 21st-rated Celtics. The Jazz shoot more 3-pointers than anyone, and they make them at a top-five rate, which is far from great news for the depleted Mavericks' defense.

You could see Mitchell go off for 50 points. Gobert might grab more rebounds in this game than anyone has since Wilt Chamberlain. Conley is a sharpshooting southpaw. Ingles is an Australian trash-talker. You're in.

For the initiated

What, if anything, do the Mavericks have around 22-year-old wunderkind and perennial MVP candidate Luka Doncic, who, as you may have guessed by now, entered health and safety protocols on Wednesday?

Well, there's Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 unicorn and one-time All-Star. Since arriving in Dallas in January 2019, Porzingis has rehabbed from a torn left ACL, suffered a torn right meniscus in the 2020 playoffs and missed 29 games last season. He has missed games this season due to knee, back and foot injuries, all of which makes the more than $100 million left on his contract through 2024 difficult to trade.

Other than that, the Mavericks feature a handful of decent role players — Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell and Reggie Bullock — none of whom light your Christmas socks on fire and all of whom have played better. Someone has to step up, or that someone will be former Nike executive turned first-year general manager Nico Harrison, who has a lot of work to do around Doncic.

There is not a move you can point to that has added value to the Mavericks in Harrison's six months on the job, and that includes the hiring of coach Jason Kidd. He has signed six players to hardship contracts: Theo Pinson, George King, Marquese Chriss, Charlie Brown Jr., Carlik Jones and Brandon Knight. He better hope his is the best Charlie Brown playing on Christmas, because he is desperate for someone to step up.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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